HL Deb 25 May 2004 vol 661 cc1191-4

2.46 p.m.

Lord Tebbit asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will make representations to the European Commission concerning the case of Mr Hans-Martin Tillack, a journalist investigating corruption in the European Union.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the case of Mr Tillack, a German journalist working in Belgium, is in the hands of Belgian prosecutors and no decision has been taken yet on whether there is any evidence on which to base a prosecution. In those circumstances, it would not be appropriate for the British Government to intervene or comment.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, I am sorry to hear that. Is the Minister aware that, according to all the press accounts, this German journalist, who is favourable towards the European Union, was publishing articles about the scandals of corruption within the Commission? He was detained—and none too gently—by the Belgian police at the request of the Commission. His computer and records, which could give the Commission access to the names of the whistleblowers, were handed to the Commission. That is hardly a step towards dealing with the corruption that we know exists in the Commission. Is it not the duty of Her Majesty's Government to tell the Commission that it should welcome the work of investigative journalists, not try to obstruct them?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have always welcomed the work of investigative journalists and have always supported all measures to eliminate fraud and corruption in the European Union and elsewhere—it is not simply a problem within the European Union. However, the particular case to which the Question refers is of a German journalist arrested in Belgium. If that indicates that there are tensions between OLAF and its supervisory committee, that is a bad thing.

I read the same press reports. In particular, I read Private Eye, to which the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, is no doubt referring. However, unless there is evidence of human rights abuse—and this case is still sub judice—there is no basis on which Her Majesty's Government can intervene or comment.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, is the Minister aware that this gentleman's article, which is quite long and detailed with graphs and names in quotes and interviews, appeared in yesterday's New York Herald Tribune? Does he not agree that it is a good idea for Members of this House who have the opportunity to see a copy of it in the Library? It is fascinating to see what we are paying for.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I did not see yesterday's Herald Tribune but the article was originally in Stern and has appeared in English before.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the issue of press freedom in the European Union is extremely important? In this instance, the Belgian police seem to have been extremely heavy-handed. Does he also recognise that press comments on the question of fraud and the role of OLAF have suggested that one of the reasons why the Commission has made only limited progress in reform is that member states have not given enough support to reforms in the Commission? One would have thought that it would have been possible for Her Majesty's Government to work with other like-minded governments to give much more active support to efforts at Commission reform.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I agree that press freedom is an important matter both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe but I wish that the undoubted progress that is being made in combating fraud and corruption in the European Union were not attacked on the basis of press reports. Press reports, particularly those in this case, which is still before the Belgian courts, are not a basis for Her Majesty's Government to intervene. We are actively intervening on the substantive issue, which is fraud.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we are told all the time by Ministers that such and such a matter has a cross-border dimension, is a matter of common interest and it is therefore legitimate for people to take an interest in other countries' internal affairs? Does he not agree that if there were any suggestion that the Belgian police or OLAF were in any way more interested in the suppression of evidence about fraud, rather than in combating fraud, that would be a matter about which we should be concerned?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that is a hypothetical question. I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, would say the same if the parliament of another member state were to start to intervene in the activities of a British court.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, as my noble friend has given a rather broad welcome to the fight against fraud, does he now regret the decision that he announced in response to a Question I asked him about a year ago? The British Government refused to join in the action against Phillip Morris and Reynolds in the United States courts. It has now resulted in a very substantial payment by those cigarette manufacturers, which will be shared by the 10 member states of the European Union that did join in the action, but unfortunately we were not among them.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, however hard I try, I cannot relate that to the Question on the Order Paper.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, returning to the question of Hans-Martin Tillack, can the Minister confirm that, under Belgian law, all journalists are required to reveal their sources to the authorities? Since Brussels is the heart of the European Union, to which we belong, is that a very good example for us to follow in promoting open democracy in Europe?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not believe that I stand at this Dispatch Box to display an understanding of Belgian law. The fact that the European Commission is based in Brussels does not really affect the issue.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I am rather puzzled by the reply that was given to the noble Lord, Lord Lamont. The reply was that would we not, in this country, take offence at the interference of another country in somebody we had arrested. But I understood that Mr Tillack was arrested at the request of the European Commission. If that is so, as a member of the European Union should we not at least be making some inquiries to see why this man was arrested and with what he is charged?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, this case is before the Belgian prosecutors. Until there is some resolution or a decision to charge him, which has not yet taken place, it would be wise for us to hold our fire.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, does the Minister agree that despite billions of our money being spent by Brussels to create it, there is really no prospect of a European demos and therefore no prospect of a genuine European democracy, which might hold the endemic corruption of the European Union to account? Is not that part of the underlying problem?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I assume that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, is speaking not about a think tank but about Athenian democracy. I fear that we are a very long way from Athenian democracy everywhere except, possibly, in Rutland.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I have some sympathy for him for the difficulty he has in answering this Question? Is he aware that the Dutroux case is still wandering its way through Belgian justice?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

No, my Lords, and the sympathy is misplaced. I have no difficulty in saying that it is not the role of this Government to intervene in matters before the Belgian courts.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the Commission is the body on which all the trumpeted national powers being concentrated by the new constitution are to be focused. Surely, the matter is of great interest to us as we will also be ruled by the Commission. We should be very careful of what the Commission does with the liberty of the subject and the freedom of the press. Does that not make this a matter for which the Minister should answer?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, we are not ruled by the Commission and, as far as I know, this case is not being brought by the Commission. All that is public knowledge, other than press reports, is that the Belgian police arrested Mr Tillack and that no decision has yet been taken on whether there is any evidence on which to base a prosecution. In those circumstances, the speculations of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, are not appropriate.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, would my noble friend confirm that some 90 per cent of the so-called fraud within the European Union is directly attributable to individual member states and not to the European Commission?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it is certainly true that 90 per cent of irregularities are due to individual states and not to the European Commission. Unfortunately, it is not entirely clear what proportion of irregularities are actually fraud, rather than mistakes of various kinds. However, the thrust behind the question of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, is right.